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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

Hollywood waves the flag for Japan

Special to The Japan Times

One day last year, the lanky figure of Clint Eastwood was seen strolling through the corridors of Japan's House of Representatives. He was in town -- on his first trip to Tokyo in four decades -- to research his upcoming World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima."

Sands of Iwo Jima
Hollywood's attitude toward Japan's conduct during World War II has come a long way, as evidenced by the contrasts between the 1949 John Wayne film "Sands of Iwo Jima" (above) and this year's Clint Eastwood blockbuster "Flags of Our Fathers" (below). AP PHOTO (above) ; (c)2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and DreamWorks LLC All Rights Reserved (below)
Flags of Our Fathers

The iconic star had decided midway through making "Flags" that he was, as he put it, "telling only half the story."

So he resolved to make a second film, "Letters," from the Japanese viewpoint.

"These men (Japanese soldiers) gave their lives for what they thought was to defend their country, or at least to delay the invasion of mainland Japan," he later told a Tokyo press conference. "They deserve respect just as the American forces do."

Intentional or not, such views, and Eastwood's desire to film a "tribute" to both sides, will make his movies one of the year's biggest cultural talking points in a nation still wrestling with its conduct during WWII. After all, Japanese conservatives such as ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and (now Prime Minister) Shinzo Abe use very similar language when explaining why they visit the Yasukuni war shrine in central Tokyo.

Japan's political leaders could honor those soldiers differently (14 A-class war criminals are interred along with two million regular soldiers at Yasukuni), by, as an example, choosing another shrine. The fact that they don't has soured relations with much of Asia and kept Japan's history in world news.

This, of course, is a discussion for Japan. But one of the more interesting developments across the Pacific is that Hollywood, over the years, has decided to take a far kinder view of this nation's wartime past than it once did.

"One side was good and one side was the villain," said Eastwood about war movies he grew up watching. "Well, we know that war just isn't like that."

Audiences here will get their first glimpse of how the 76-year-old thinks the war should be remembered when "Flags of our Fathers" opens the Tokyo International Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 21. The movie, which goes on general release in the United States on Oct. 20 and in Japan on Oct. 28, is the first of a unique double-header purporting to tell the story of one of the war's bloodiest battles from both sides.

Part II, "Letters from Iwo Jima," to be released here Dec. 9, features a Japanese-speaking cast led by Ken Watanabe in the lead role as Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the general who, in 1945, defended the tiny volcanic island referred to in the film's title at the cost of 21,000 Japanese and 6,800 American lives.

It is a sign of Eastwood's clout in Hollywood following an impressive late-career bloom (including Oscars for best director and picture in 2005 for "Million Dollar Baby") that he was able to finance the second film in a country famously averse to subtitles.

By all accounts, he has worked hard to get the Japanese side of his epic right, flying to Iwo Jima on a Self-Defense Forces plane, meeting Japanese military veterans and dropping in on Kuribayashi's grandson, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshitaka Shindo.

"He was most interested in why Japanese soldiers didn't surrender when they knew they couldn't win," Shindo told this writer. "Americans wouldn't fight a battle they knew they were going to lose."

Eastwood isn't the first Hollywood director to turn his camera sympathetically on the "other." After making two movies ("Born on the Fourth of July" and "Platoon") depicting the U.S. war in Vietnam as a blood-soaked, chaotic mess, Oliver Stone gave us "Heaven and Earth" (1993), the story of a Vietnamese village girl whose life is torn apart when the invaders arrive.

Sam Peckinpah's brutish 1977 masterpiece "Cross of Iron" depicts a battered German platoon fleeing from the Russian front. The granddaddy of Hollywood's antiwar canon, Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) follows a group of German World War I soldiers on their journey from gung-ho patriots to bitter (or dead) troops. But those efforts aside, Hollywood's default setting for America as "the good guys" has ensured the bulk of its war product is populated by an undistinguished cast of crude caricatures: hatchet-faced, psychopathic "krauts" with leather fetishes and bad German accents; faceless, emaciated and mute "gooks"; and banzai-screaming, robotic "Nips" bent on self-destruction.

The seeds of these caricatures lie in wartime propaganda. The 1945 U.S. movie "Know Your Enemy: Japan," opens with the lines: "The Japanese all bear a striking resemblance to each other. They are like photographs taken from the same negative." But the war had been over for four years when John Wayne's character and his fellow marines mowed down hordes of fanatical, identikit "Japs" in "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949), the first attempt to film the epic battle.

Thereafter, popular images of the former enemy went through a series of transformations, like a kabuki actor switching masks.

In the 1950s and '60s, Japan reverted in many Hollywood movies to its prewar stereotype: sensual, passive and ready to swoon into the arms of its U.S. Cold War "protector," literally so in Joshua Logan's 1957 interracial romance "Sayonara," where a U.S. Air Force major (Marlon Brandon) is bewitched by Japanese dancer Miiko Taka.

As the Japanese economic miracle began to lap at the shores of the U.S. in the 1970s, images of ninja, samurai and shoguns reappeared; a sign, says Sheila Johnson, author of "The Japanese Through American Eyes," that the U.S. was again coming to perceive the "masculine" side of Japan.

The mask changed again in the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a tsunami of Japanese capital swept across the U.S., carrying away the Rockefeller Center, Columbia Studios and other capitalist trophies.

In "Gung Ho" (1986), "Black Rain" (1989), "Rising Sun" (1993), "Robocop 3" (1993) and many other movies, the Japanese are again inscrutable, devious, power-hungry and often anti-American. "Black Rain," for example, features a yakuza plot to flood the U.S. with counterfeit dollars in revenge for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like the images of giant sumo wrestlers stomping across Wall Street that once filled the pages of the U.S. business press, those filmic caricatures largely disappeared during the "lost decade," when fears of Japanese takeover receded. But Japan has in the last few years made a comeback to the U.S. big screen in a series of pop-culture blockbusters: "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (2003), "The Last Samurai" (2003), "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005).

Although obviously more affectionate than much of Hollywood's earlier fare, and symbolizing the recent rise of Japan as a cultural power in the popular American imagination, there is some doubt about whether these movies supplant or just reinforce earlier stereotypes: flashing swords, supplicant women, inscrutable Oriental ways and the same old sore points: Can't they get Japanese actors (Lucy Liu? Ziyi Zhang?) to play Japanese parts?

"Letters" (due for U.S. release as "Red Sun, Black Sand" in December) is the latest attempt to revisit the war. These days, of course, Japan under its new neoconservative leader Abe, is the most loyal of U.S. allies; much more trustworthy than China, which is surely set to replace Japan as America's cultural bogeyman in Asia. And Japan is Hollywood's second-most valuable market, another reason not to offend, even in dealing with the inherently offensive; hence the famous little scene in "Pearl Harbor" (2001) when a Japanese pilot tries to warn American children out of the way of his bombs. Is it time then for a radical Hollywood reinterpretation of the war, humanizing an enemy once demonized like no other?

In many ways, Eastwood is an odd standard-bearer for this mission. Stone, Peckinpah and Milestone were Hollywood rebels who fought the system and, more often than not, lost -- at least commercially. Eastwood is the consummate insider, a former studio star and Nixonite Republican who, in the shape of rightwing fantasy figure "Dirty Harry" (1971) was symbolically cleaning up urban America of its long-haired '60s excesses as the Vietnam War raged.

But as he has aged, the director has become less obviously polemic and more introspective in his movie choices. "He told me he didn't want to make a movie simply about war, but about families and the human heart," says lawmaker Shindo. Eastwood will attempt to show that, aside from the causes for which they fought, the Japanese and Americans were two sides of the same coin, fighting to save their loved ones.

He can only do this by transforming the former robotic enemy into flesh and blood, giving his Japanese characters distinguishable and likable faces and recognizable human qualities, particularly the capacity for fear and love. It is no accident that the hugely charismatic Watanabe has been chosen to help U.S. audiences overcome the weight of decades of cultural stereotype. Minor parts are filled by fresh-faced, handsome actors, including 22-year-old Kazunari Ninomiya from the pop group Arashi.

It will be interesting to see how Eastwood pulls this off. As James Bradley, the author of the best-selling book on which "Flags" is based, says, the values of the Japanese and his father -- one of the six marines who raised the famous flag -- were similar: politeness, integrity, honor, simplicity and devotion to family. The flag-raisers represented the best of small-town American values. Abe and his neocon allies think the same about their troops and would love to see a Hollywood movie agree.

The only way around this exercise in cultural equivalence is to explore the politics and the background to the conflict. But this is hardly Hollywood's forte, and most people involved in the project seem determined to avoid politics, or any comparison to the current "war on terror."

Of course, comparisons will be made anyway. In "Flags," Bradley's father is told "The right picture can win or lose a war," a reference surely not lost on those who recall the horrific images of Abu Ghraib. And many will be struck by the contrast between the secrecy with which George W. Bush's war has been prosecuted and the much more open way WWII was fought (Washington then had to continually make the case for war to raise the $14 billion in bonds needed to finish it).

Still, let's not judge "Flags" before we see it. It may indeed be possible that Eastwood has managed to make a genuinely enlightening piece of art about the reasons why men can switch from butchering each other to sharing the same SDF facilities in the blink of a political eye.

Perhaps Hollywood's current vogue for revisionist movies might lead it to dramatize the destruction of Hiroshima? Or the greatest mass-killing in the history of modern warfare: the Tokyo firebombing of 1945. Now those would be movies worth seeing.

David McNeill writes for the London Independent, the Irish Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is a coordinator of Japan Focus (www.japanfocus.org).

See related stories:
Scriptwriter talks about Japan hit 'Letters'
Eastwood didn't idealize Kuribayashi
From knights to pawns
Telling another side of the story
Iwo Jima: 'A futile battle' fought without surrender
His Emperor's reluctant warrior
'Even the dead were being forced to fight'
War dead said to haunt Iwojima

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